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Do the Old Testament Dietary Laws Still Apply?
Publish date: May 13, 2009
Summary: The Old Testament was written thousands of years ago. Do we still need to heed its warnings about clean and unclean animals?
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We have examined the original diet God intended for humankind, and the animals that God defined as clean and unclean after sin entered the world. Now we ask, why should we follow the Old Testament dietary laws in this day and age?
We will work through several reasons people object, and various Bible verses that seem to say we don’t have to observe the dietary laws. We must learn to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Question 1: Aren’t these lists of clean and unclean animals just for the Jews?
There were no Jews were on Noah’s ark. Only later, the descendants of Abraham become known as “Jews.”i So in the early days, God instructed them in the concept of “clean” and “unclean” animals. The list predates the laws of Moses, therefore applying to all humanity, not just one particular group.
Question 2: Didn’t Peter have a vision that told him to eat unclean animals? Wouldn’t this mean that the dietary laws were no longer in effect?
Answer: Note the following facts about the Acts 10 story:
A) Cornelius, a Gentile, received a vision instructing him to send for Peter.
B) Peter also received a vision before Cornelius’s men came to his home. He “saw heaven opened” and a sheet descending “down to the earth.”ii It was filled with unclean animals, creeping things, and fowls (Acts 10:11-12).
C) When Peter is told to “kill, and eat” he says, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). Peter was never taught by Jesus to eat anything “common or unclean.” He can’t believe the Lord would tell him to do this.
D) “Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean” (Acts 10:17). If the Lord literally told him to eat unclean animals, why would he doubt? Wouldn’t the change in dietary laws be obvious? Peter doubted because he realized the vision was symbolic—not referring to literal unclean animals.
E) When Peter came to Cornelius’ home, he realized, “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28, emphasis added). The Holy Spirit was given to Gentiles just as He had been given to the Jews on Pentecost. Peter learned that the Gospel message was meant for all the world, not just the Jews. The vision was not about dietary laws, but about giving the message to all—because no one to be considered “unclean,” or unreachable by Christ’s redemption. The vision used unclean creatures as symbols of Gentile nations now called to come to God through the Gospel.iii
Question 3: Haven’t we been called to liberty in Christ, no longer under the slavery of the Law?
Answer: Since the dietary laws existed before Noah’s time, is obedience to them really “enslavement”?
Think of the history of these dietary laws: First, they are given to humankind before the days of Noah. Then, the Lord tells His people that they will be disease-free if they follow His laws (Exodus 15:26). The clean and unclean foods are clearly defined in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Peter’s vision shows us that Jesus did not abolish clean and unclean.
Paul tells believers to “touch not the unclean thing” and the Lord will receive them. John speaks of spiritual Babylon as a “cage of every unclean and hateful bird." In Isaiah’s prophesy of the new earth after the return of Christ, those who eat “swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together” (Isaiah 66:17). From one end of the Bible to the other, the concept of clean and unclean is upheld. It is a matter of health and well-being, not slavery.
Our modern world equates “freedom” with doing whatever we wish, but God calls us to a higher standard. Paul tells us to “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Jesus tells us “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Peter tells us “the Spirit of Christ” was in the prophets of old, meaning that the dietary laws are the words of Christ.
For the sake of showing our love to the Lord by obeying Him, as well as escaping disease by observing His dietary laws—let us honor God by following His rules for health and happiness.iv Do we really want to ignore these health laws? If we do, we do so to our own peril.
In part 2 of this Q&A on Biblical dietary laws, we will deal with three passages from the New Testament that seem to object to the dietary laws.
ii. The vision comes from heaven. One would expect such creatures to rise out of the earth, not descend from heaven! This indicates this was symbolic, not literal.
iii. Even today we use unclean animals as symbols of nations, such as the American Eagle, the British Lion, the Canadian Beaver, and the Russian Bear.
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